Umpiring Outstanding – Well Done

A loose ground ball lays on the MCG. Easton Wood on one side and Dan Hannebery on the other. In a desperate attempt to win possession in the manner we have been raised for decades Wood launches himself headlong at the inevitably disputed ball. Hannebery is a split second later – perhaps wondering “do I dive in for it or do I keep my feet and follow the recent rule change?” In the end Wood wins the ball conclusively and Hannebery is taken from the ground with a potential ACL injury.

Why is this single contest so significant?

Firstly it shows the desperation and commitment from Wood irrespective of rules and regulations – THAT BALL IS MINE!

Secondly it shows the confusing implications of AFL interference under the banner of “brand”. Coaches knew, fans knew, players knew and thankfully the umpires also knew that you couldn’t penalise a player for trying to win a loose ball in a manic contest on the most important day of the year. This should vindicate the umpires to have the rule changed back to how it has been for 100 years.

The only more significant incident than the one highlighted would have been if the scores were level and the contest was in the goal square and Wood wins it to break the deadlock as the siren sounds. This scenario has been talked about ad-nauseum since the imbeciles in the looney house decided to change the interpretation post Adam Goodes diving in to contests and Gary Rohan severely injuring his left knee.

Owner or two isolated incidents do not warrant rule changes. Players adapt. Coaches drill. 

We all knew the AFL would not pay those types of free kicks on Grand Final day – or a cut-throat final for that matter. The decision was made simply to appease the general public and impress the passing parade of “doomsdayers” looking for a perfect outcome to a brutal contest.

We probably counted 10 similar incidents during the game and none of them were paid. Were the umpires intimidated? Did they truly believe in the rule?

The facts are umpires let most insignificant, borderline incidents go during the finals series. Speak to any person at the AFL Umpire division and they’ll say that’s because the best umpires are officiating. Absolute Rubbish. 

It’s all about attitude not ability. The attitude of umpires in big games is totally different. They do not want to influence or impact a game whereas during the season they can strut, impose, be technical, over officiate and think the games about them.

The umpires were brilliant on the weekend and for most of the finals series it might be said. Let’s hope they can continue on in the same vein from Round 1 next year.

Manic Defence Focus Flawed in GF’s

Grand Finals throw up all sorts of questions. Like the correlation between risk and safety, daring and security, scoring and minimising, attack and defence.

Look at the famous Sydney Swans model, which from a culture and leadership perspective is unmistakably elite.

However I’m not certain they have chosen the correct strategy or tactical method.

Let’s look at the facts.

Paul Roos, Ross Lyon and John Longmire have all come from the same system. They have all coached together in their formative years at the Sydney Swans.

Since 2005, Paul Roos, John Longmire and Ross Lyon have coached their respective teams into 8 of the last 12 Grand Finals. That’s a mighty impressive statistic.

They have competed in 9 Grand Finals including the drawn GF in 2010 with the Ross Lyon Saints and Pies.

Collectively the three have won 2 premierships over those 9 Grand Finals. Not a great return by any standards.

One can’t help but focus on the fundamental game plan adopted by the three very closely connected coaches. Perhaps if Paul Roos didn’t win in 2005, the magnetic influence over Longmire and Lyon would not have been so dominant or overpowering. This was at a time that Roos adopted the ‘lock down” on attack and drained the instinct and initiative out of players into a dogged team defence, systemised with strategic and tactical warfare. It was very successful at ensuring the team was competitive however somewhat unsustainable from a premiership perspective as the results show. 

History will also determine that Ross Lyon took the manic defence to a whole new level during his reign at the Saints which when considered against the significant talent pool was somewhat of an anchor in their quest for a premiership.

Let’s look at the goals scored in those 9 Grand Finals:

Paul Roos

2005: 8 Goals & Premiership

2006: 12 Goals

Ross Lyon

2009: 9 Goals

2010: 10 Goals

2010: 7 Goals (Replay)

2013: 8 Goals

John Longmire

2012: 14 Goals & Premiership

2014: 11 Goals

2016: 10 Goals

Those 9 Grand Finals amount to a total of 2 Premierships (2005 & 2012) and 89 goals for an average of 9.9 goals per Grand Final whilst their opponents have scored 112 goals or 12.5 goals per GF.

The facts are that EVERY team has 5 minutes of glory Grand Final day and in that time 3 or 4 goals is usually enough to hit the lead and demoralise the defensive mindset of the opponent.

The Eagles did in ’06, those blasted Cats did in ’09 as did the Pies in ’10 along with the Hawks and Western Bulldogs in more recent years.

Those precious few minutes of goal-scoring glory breaks the back of the team focussing too much on defence.

Luke Beveridge instilled a dare to be different approach into his team. He asked them to look defeat in the eye. You have to be prepared to lose to win. You must pull the trigger. Risks need to be taken. Daring is a by product of competition. It is a totally different mindset but one that will prevail over the manic defence based strategy – thank heavens for Bevo!

Don’t Blink or Look Away – Doggies 

Grand Final first quarters – and more specifically first 15 minutes – are captivating and enthralling. Don’t look away today. Get your drinks, food, finalise toilet stops because the entire match is going to be out of control amazing. 

Now and then we witness a mismatch, a bullying, a massacre, however even in these cases the opening is electrictrifying. Today’s grand final will be entrancing from start to finish. 

The Western Bulldogs led by the best coach in the competition, Luke Beveridge, will win in the end. The margin will be 7 points. 

I am expecting a cliffhanger, a game where at some stage both sides will be able to lay claim to victory. John Longmire is an experienced finals and premiership coach, working in the most highly regarded system in the AFL – the famous Bloods culture. They have the flattest leadership model in the competition and it will serve them well today – but not well enough. 

General consensus is the Swans win and win somewhat comfortably. I beg to differ. 

I actually think at a point in time after 1/2 time they’ll freeze up a tad, tighten, choose the safety option and try to secure a win without cost. 

The Doggies have one secret up their sleeve. 

They are prepared to lose to win. They look defeat in the eye and make a decision. They are not intimidated by losing. They are driven by deeds not outcomes. Actions not thoughts. Causes not effects. 

Their model is simple. Don’t die wondering. Leave everything out there. Losing is ok if you exhaust all options. They subscribe to the driving force of; you have to be prepared to lose to win. 

They have speed, unconditional support and options around contest and are incredibly well drilled. 

They rely on no individual. Their star player is the team. Every star stud is exactly the same. No exaggerated light, no bigger points, no extra glitz or glamour for a few. Just the same boring 22 star studs – no differentiation. No individuals to focus on especially or tag – do that at your peril. 

Sure Bontempelli has extraordinary skills but he is up against Parker, Hannebery, Kennedy, Jack & co so why would you bother. You can run Mitchell on him but he’ll just take him to the forward line & out mark  him. 

Johannisen is a launching pad out of D50 & you could look to align him with a McGlynn to keep him accountable but happy days as Swans require McGlynn to be a goal kicking factor & it’s difficult doing both. 

The Swans have the “best” players but they also have the “worst” players in my opinion and Grand Finals are won by your “worst” 6 players not your best 6!

The Doggies are all grouped together. After all they personify what a team is. Reliable, dependable, unconditional, selfless and consistent. 

This is no discredit to the Swans who are a mighty unit. 

At a particular point in the game the Swans will tighten, go for safety first, whilst the Doggies will take even more risks, gutrun more, pull the trigger and defy all odds to deliver their 2nd premiership and first for 62 years.

It’s Swans & Doggies For Me!

Swans win because they are more consistent, play more instinctively as a team and their effort is unconditional. I still have questions over Mackie’s desperation at times. Enright’s selectivity this year and their dependence on Hawkins to fire. On the other hand the Swans are relentless, hard and tough around the contest, perhaps lack the flair and instinct of the Cats but more than make up for it with raw courage and conviction. 

Aliir is an absolute beauty who belies his experience and seems to have the composure of a 150 game veteran. His decision-making in traffic is sublime as is his skill execution. He reads the play like he wrote the book and has the uncanny ability to leave his opponent on the death knock to go third man up and assist contested marking situations. I’m an Aliir believer.

Heeney doesn’t worry about the pressure in games and just lights it up when he is needed. Love watching this young guy. His attack on the footy and elite ability to win one on one contests give his team mates the confidence to just kick long to him one out. Game-breaker.

Similarly Mr Reliable, Dane Rampe is one tough unit. He’s an animal. Tough, relentless, never beaten. 

The only concern I have with the Swans is their selection and potential for unfit players not being able to contribute to the required standard. Kurt Tippett with his jaw problems and Gary Rohan with his bruised knee.

If Rohan is near his best look out. I speculated some time ago he is a massive finals factor. He is the type of player that is unmatchable on MCG during the pressure of a final. Speed, leap, agility, competitiveness are all X-factor attributes that make him an opposition coaches nightmare.

Aliir, Heeney and Rohan are the players I love to watch most and feel they will be the decider of the result. All that great talent and we haven’t even mentioned Hannebery, Kennedy, Parker, Jack or Buddy (who incidentally I think will be well held tonight).

The mighty Western Bulldogs will throttle the Giants tomorrow in a David and Goliath tussle that will be very close. The Giants are clearly the Goliath with their vast array of first round draft talent (23 to be precise) – plus another 3 coming this year. It is inconceivable (frankly obscene) that in a COMPETITION, the governing or administering body can provide such a “leg-up” to a newly formed team. It defies the logic of the whole competition concept and meaning and in my mind utterly devalues the principles of a competition and by extension the premiership. But that’s another story.

Luke Beveridge is an absolute master coach. The best I’ve seen since Denis Pagan in my view. His ability to manage, interact, motivate, direct and lead is ultra impressive. He has the uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time, he has deep affection for his players and he knows what is required to prepare a team for a highly contested and pressurised event. 

I picked the Bulldogs for the premiership in June and I’m not backing off one bit. This is the game they must win of course to participate and if they do – look out!

Bontempelli – enough said……………

The guy is an absolute gun with a very controlled and mature head on his shoulders (more of the Beveridge influence). Johannisen will be the star tomorrow night against the Giants. Boyd and Morris will hold the defence adequately together and we are all hoping Stringer lets himself “slip” and throws caution to the wind with his attack on the contest. Dahlhaus is the most underrated inside, competitor in AFL ranks and won’t die wondering about the result.

One must have great respect for the Giants as the talent in their team is off the charts. They have an arrogance that is nurtured and advocated in the remote AFL domiciled district of Greater West Sydney but we are talking Preliminary finals now and the Bulldogs don’t get intimidated.

They hit the contest very hard, they pull the trigger with disposal – especially handball – and have the valued commodity of being prepared to lose to win. Don’t underestimate that factor. Many sides are not prepared to risk failure for success or a mistake for an opportunity. This is the fundamental that finals are built on,  especially the most difficult one to win – The Preliminary Final.

Steve Johnson Guilty or Innocent?

Now that the dust has settled and the raw emotion has been taken out of the situation my view is Steve Johnson should be playing in the preliminary final and not missing it.

At the stoppage Kennedy clearly looks at Johnson prior to the ball up and is aware of his presence to a point that it could be construed he is going to block his pathway to the contest. 

Johnson doesn’t look at Kennedy, is clearly focussed on the contest and driving through the middle of the stoppage at pace to win a clearance – something he is renowned for.

At a critical juncture the ball is tapped back over Kennedy’s head as he instinctively raises his hand to grab the ball and nearly connects with it. This significantly warrants Johnson to change direction sharply to follow its flight and engage the ball. It is at this point that Kennedy is standing prone in his line of pursuit to the ball.

In my mind there is no alternative for Johnson to avoid contact with Kennedy if he is legitimately attempting to win the ball as Kennedy is directly in his line of following the tapped ball away from the congested stoppage. 

Johnson could have tried to stop, spun away from Kennedy or not braced for contact. I don’t believe any of these courses of action would be naturally expected. The one corollary with this is the fact that players in congested situations no longer expect contact when they are not in possession or about to take possession of the ball. Players – on the back of recent AFL rule changes – have been provided with a much safer work place and the threat of physical harm has been significantly diminished. The net effect of these new safety guidelines is players are not protecting themselves and in many cases are not even aware of potential clashes or physical contests because of their confidence in the rules to protect them.

Whether it be tackling or bumps (when we are lucky enough to see one of these beautiful executed but now relatively extinct aspects of the game), players can add to the trauma by not bracing or being aware of the potential danger because rules have been put in place to protect them from head high physical clashes. This gives an unnecessary and overbearing sense of confidence in most hotly contested situations but when a clash inevitably happens players are more susceptible to injury because of their lack of awareness and lack of protection on the back of these rules. 

Whilst Kennedy has his eye on Johnson initially and knows he is probably going to run straight through the action he is completely unprotected and utterly unaware of the potential danger. Like in boxing players should be instructed to protect themselves at all times and in fact taught to expect contact as players were taught for a hundred years.

This situation leads into my concerns around the intimidation, danger and fear within a game of footy which the AFL has seen fit to minimise and be the social conscience for society. I am of the view that it is a gladiators game. It should be dangerous. You must be able to overcome fear. Intimidation is a valuable asset in sport. Fans love to see it in action and more so love to see how opponents react. 

It must be highlighted that I am not in any way condoning elbows, punches, kicks or thuggery.

My point is simple; expect contact, brace yourself and protect your head at all times otherwise the whiplash affect of a well executed bump may result in some head trauma. I am a strong advocate for minimising danger at every level outside AFL (Junior, VFL, Country, Metropolitan etc).

The AFL may believe they are being responsible citizens to society but they are ripping the very heart out of the very best game in the world.

Uphold Competition Respect

When money wasn’t a factor, when brand didn’t matter, when people respected ALL sports and didn’t fear their existence, when all everyone was interested in was seeing who was the very best – football reigned supreme. 

Sure there were financial problems and of course some clubs struggled to keep pace but there was a constant that kept driving everyone involved, administrators, players and fans alike – it was the competition. 

Who is the best team on field & off field. It was raw, tribal, brutal, fanatical, respectful & humble all at once. 

It didn’t matter if it was the Saints winning 1 premiership by 1 point over 140 years or the Dogs not having won since their solitary flag in 1954. Hawthorn winning over 25% of flags since 1971 or the dominance of the Pies era winning 4 in a row or the barnstorming Demons of the late 50’s taking all before them. Port Adelaide claiming victory in 2004 – much to my chagrin – and West Coast dominating proceedings with a state team was even mildly palatable and begrudgingly accepted.  The Crows were awesome in the late 90’s and helped the National competition to take hold. This followed by the incredible 3peat of the Lions at the turn of the millennium. It was still a competition. 

There is no doubt the competition as we knew it was changing dramatically for the benefit of the national game and ensuring interstate teams had a very good chance to play finals. 

It was nevertheless a competition. A little manipulation. Some orchestrated match ups. A few inside runs. A bit of preferential treatment. Additional money here and there. Some help with extra draft choices. A mildly contrived “FIXture”. One or two decisions on the run. Ostensibly only mild influence exerted or imposed by the AFL. Not perfect but pretty close to pure and simple competition. 

Sure we had cellar dwellers. Yes we had perennial wooden spooners. Certainly there were multiple premiership winners and dominant clubs. Once again there was one constant – it was fierce, ferocious, savage COMPETITION. It didn’t matter where you were on the ladder your fans were unconditional and rabid. 

I understand the need to ensure the national  competition flourishes but I don’t buy into the obscene manipulation and involvement currently undertaken by the AFL. Sydney struggled early days and the AFL didn’t want that to happen again.  Have they gone too far the other way? Without a doubt in my opinion. 

It cannot be called a competition when your success is dependant on the influence and involvement of decisions beneficial only to your club. Ensuring teams win premierships is a disgraceful and offensive platform to run a competition. 

For the Giants to have 23 first round draft choices with at least another 3 to come this year is wildly beyond a “leg up”. Ditto the Suns. I understand individual executives have a penchant desire to accelerate success on their own watch for some head wobble but they have taken it too far this time. 

I acknowledge AFL leaders have a difficult job juggling support for new franchises and interfering with the spirit of competition. One would expect some consideration and leniency to new interstate teams, especially ones in difficult markets such as NSW & Qld. However logic and integrity also suggests that there are 2 decisions that should never happen. Firstly (in order,) is not to hand-deliver a premiership to a club and secondly, not to provide enough support for them to compete over a reasonable period of time. 

Premierships are sacrosanct and need to be kept for worthy recipients who have stood the test of time and been rewarded for exceptional efforts and performances – or you run the risk of diluting its value. 

My formula is pretty simple. Provide every club with a reasonable “unfiltered” chance of making finals. Do that often enough and you’ll win a flag here and there. Making finals is a wonderful achievement especially for a club in their 5th year. Don’t give clubs excellent chances to win premierships, give them a reasonable chance to make finals. That’s the significant difference. Teams should “win” premierships in a brutal competition not just have it as a natural next step in their existence. 

There is a high degree of “fait accompli” about recent decisions and even more so  as it relates to immediate future winners. 

Coaching Reality

Upon appointment as coach to St Kilda in 2001 I immediately set about defining the structure that I believe gives a team it’s best chance of success.
Let’s be clear on one thing, you are in the premiership business – that’s an undeniable fact.

As Club Coach/Manager I oversaw the entire football operation similar to a General Manager within any corporate business. All coaches were put on employment contracts and were seen as managers not assistant coaches. They were all given a portfolio on top of their usual duties. List Management (including recruiting & draft), Contracts (TPP), Tribunal, AFL administration, VFL Liaison etc. Each of these responsibilities were given to an “assistant coach” as part of their personal development and to ensure all decisions were in line with the agreed strategic direction of the football club. We insisted that EVERY duty or decision made that impacted football must be made by the people charged with the responsibility to deliver the success – the coaches.

Of course their normal duties also required their focus such as; player development, tactical and strategic decisioning, opposition analysis, general training drills, player performance feedback, offence & defence management, team meetings, stoppage structures, ball movement and game plan implementation, leadership group involvement etc

We knocked down all walls within the environment and had a completely “open” room policy where all managers worked from work stations giving players 100% accessibility and transparency. We had a few break out rooms for private one on one meetings, selection and planning etc as well as a “War Room” where we devised our plans, plotted against opponents, had our pre-game team meetings and conducted leadership meetings in. We had a player theatre where we conducted video analysis, game reviews and club sessions involving all players on the list.

I actually only took training about 6 times each season. Every session was devised on collective agreement of the managers and implemented by a “coach” who ran the session. We all had roles to perform during training.
The AFL became incensed that we did not have a designated football manager and that Matt “Bundy” Rendell who in their eyes was “only” an assistant coach was our AFL Football Manager. This came about because the AFL insisted that every club had a person who would liaise with them – generally the Football Manager. When they heard we didn’t have a footy manager they insisted we have one, so we appointed Bundy into that position to satisfy City Hall. They were furious. He also oversaw List Management working closely with John Beveridge on draft, recruiting etc. Tribunal was another role he performed. He is forever indebted for the learnings and experiences he gained under that structure where he developed into something more than just an assistant coach.

“Bundy” also was in charge of the opposition and strategic/tactical operations.

It is my view that there can be a significant disconnection between the current Football Manager role who performs some/most of these aforementioned duties and the agreed strategically defined charter undertaken by the coach/manager and his assistants. There is an undeniable tug of war that erupts within clubs, between the Football manager, CEO and Coach. It creates an unnecessary and unworkable environment which confuses staff and creates constraints in the agreed goals.

Let’s remember, each has a different mandate and in many cases they conflict with each other. Broadly, CEO’s are in the revenue and brand business, Coaches are in the premiership business and Football Managers sit somewhere in the middle trying to juggle the expectations of both as well as provide the necessary information and support required to facilitate the role. It’s a mess in my opinion. Fortunately most footy managers of late only have to deal with recently retired players, or relatively inexperienced coaches so confrontation and challenging of decisions remain minimal – unfortunately results are sometimes commensurate with these structural inadequacies.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, I am speaking generally here.
Clearly the experience, talent and skills of ALL of the coaches needs to be significantly raised if they are to assume the responsibilities outlined in the structure we adopted from 2001-2006. You would not be able to appoint a recently retired player without some sort of coaching/manager experience.

Coaching your own team in your own right at senior level would be mandatory. Business or corporate experience would also be a valuable commodity. This would in turn mean that AFL coaches may reach 40 before they would be considered experienced and competent to perform the duty successfully. The upside is the elimination of the stabs in the dark or the dart throwing exercises recently experienced.

Whenever I talk to assistant coaches I get similar messages from them. They cite boredom, have too much time on their hands and are not engaged enough in responsibilities outside players and their development. Training services do not allow coaches to have access to players for long enough periods of time and frankly the players get bored and disinterested if their time at the club is extended.

Perhaps clubs could look at their existing structures and implement a more rigorous and entrepreneurial regime to future appointments. They may avoid some of the dilemmas we are currently seeing and would definitely provide a more sustainable, enriching experience for coaches within a currently stale environment. We are habitual creatures and the AFL is no different. Time to be brave and reposition, relaunch some traditional structures?